The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of the “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) project, has been compared by Bloomberg to the Marshall Plan in terms of its potential economic legacy. However, CPEC’s most enduring legacy will be in the realm of security. Its infrastructural and economic advantages, paired with the political importance of ties with China, have made Pakistan particularly malleable to Beijing’s security demands. China has begun urging Pakistan to strengthen operations against militant groups, and Pakistan has acquiesced. CPEC, therefore serves not only as a strong incentive for Pakistan to improve its internal security but it also means that China’s economic prospects are intertwined with the stability of the region.
Why Pakistan Is Willing to Pay Any Cost for CPEC’s Success
CPEC is an ambitious project that will connect the province of Xinjiang with the port of Gwadar in Pakistan via a network of highways, railways, and pipelines. This includes a complete reconstruction of the Karakoram Highway, the nation’s ‘jugular vein’ that connects Pakistan with China through Gilgit-Baltistan. The deal also includes over $33 billion worth of energy infrastructure that would supply Pakistan with much-needed electricity.
The economic and infrastructural benefits are appreciable, but Pakistan also stands to gain leverage in its foreign relations, particularly vis-à-vis the US. CPEC, along with the overarching OBOR, links China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Iran. Security analyst Shaukat Qadir has likened these economic linkages and the military cooperation they are likely to foster to a modern-day Warsaw Pact. For Pakistan, CPEC, therefore, serves as a means to hedge against their ‘fair-weather friend’, the US, especially in light of the latters growing closeness with India.
A final benefit of CPEC for Pakistan is military equipment and vessels from China. On January 14, 2017, China “handed over” two ships to Pakistan for the security of the CPEC. Two more ships will be delivered by China at a later date. These acquisitions are timely: India’s navy has been expanding and modernizing rapidly over the past two decades, replacing its Soviet era vessels, commissioning stealth warships, and acquiring nuclear-powered submarines. For Pakistan’s navy to be on par with India’s, it needs all the assistance it can get.
CPEC and Internal Stability in Pakistan
China is urging Pakistan to improve its internal security and the infrastructure built to supportCPEC will make this change possible. The Karakoram Highway, mentioned in the previous section, passes through the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). KP is the site of a number of pro-Taliban organizations and has further been inundated by militant spillover from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), all of which exacerbates KP’s governance and development problems. As a result poor governance, underdevelopment and militancy are interlinked, each aggravating the other. Khalid Jan, a financial analyst at the provincial Department of Commerce and Industry, has called CPEC a lifeline. China has promised KP a fast track railway, a hydropower project, and roads. KP, in response, has taken steps to improve ease of business by passing police reforms that aim to improve efficiency, transparency and accountability.
Pressure from China can also encourage the resolution of outstanding domestic disputes. A recent instance of this is the proposal to elevate the status of Gilgit-Baltistan from self-governing administrative territory to province. Gilgit-Baltistan, which connects Pakistan to China, is crucial for passage through the CPEC. The area is staunchly pro-Pakistan but has not been formally recognized because of its possible future role in a Kashmir referendum that could tip the vote in Pakistan’s favor. The contested nature of the area, however, makes China uneasy about the fate of its investments. Official recognition of Gilgit-Baltistan as a province would bring stability to the region and greatly reduce China’s economic risks. Thanks to CPEC the proposal is moving forward and, if passed, would resolve a decades-old provincial dispute.
CPEC is not the magical solution to all of Pakistan’s internal problems. Perhaps the most glaring problem with the way the Central Government is carrying out the negotiations is the near lack of consultation with all the provinces: allies and opposition alike. Smooth implementation of CPEC-linked projects requires the cooperation of all the provinces involved. Nor have the major political parties considered the possible effects of the influx of Chinese soldiers and workers on local populations. Similar influxes of Chinese workers in African nations like Ghana and Algeria have led to social conflict and unemployment.
The opportunities presented in the realms of governance and security as an upshot of CPEC may give Pakistan the boost it needs to move towards greater stability. Pakistan’s need for an economic boost and friendly powers, if not full-fledged allies, gives China a position of authority. This is a position that it will likely continue to exploit, given Beijing’s impatience with any internal dispute that may come in the way of its investments. However, the government of Pakistan, both central and provincial, would be wise to ensure that the imperatives of CPEC don’t override the welfare of their people.